By: Kelly Rockey
Whatcom Community College hosted a community forum on Social Security June 5 in the Syre Auditorium, with a variety of guest speakers.
President of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) Terry O’Neill and Rep. Rick Larsen (D) of Washington’s 2nd Congressional District were among the speakers who discussed Social Security and the different issues surrounding it.
Hosted by emcee Dr. Vernon Johnson, a political science professor at Western Washington University, the forum offered various presentations of personal stories, basic information about the program, and some of the legislative aspects.
The theme of the night was a simple message: “scrap the cap.” The meaning behind this phrase relates to removing the $117,000 cap currently in place on Social Security tax rates for high-income earners.
Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute gave a brief overview of Social Security and some of the issues facing the program.
“We hear a lot of rumors about Social Security going broke,” Watkins said. “Now there is a tiny bit of truth to these, but they are loaded with fallacies.”
She explained how the current cap system works, with Social Security taxes being collected at a rate of 6.2 percent on all paychecks, but only up to the first $117,000 in yearly earnings.
This means that no taxpayer will contribute more than 6.2 percent of $117,000 to Social Security in 2014, even if he or she has an annual income in the millions. High-income earners pay a lower tax rate on total earnings when compared to the vast majority of U.S. citizens.
As the president of N.O.W., O’Neill had much to say on how Social Security affects women differently than men, specifically in what she called “the benefit gap for women.”
The benefit gap refers to the average amount a woman receives from Social Security compared to a man. O’Neill said that the system uses the number of years a person has served in the workforce when calculating the amount that a person receives in his or her check.
She said men average 35 years in the work force while women only average 27 years. Because of this, O’Neill said many women are “penalized” for leaving work to care for children. She also noted that this is true for many men as well, who may have dropped out of the workforce to care for children or elderly parents.
O’Neill said she had a solution to this problem, by implementing a caregiver tax credit. This proposed tax credit would have the system plug in the national median wage for the years removed from the workforce due to caregiving.
“We need to find a way for Social Security to stop penalizing women for dropping out of the workforce,” O’Neill said.
She also spoke about the benefits of “scrapping the cap,” and how simple it would be. She said that by doing so, more money would be “flowing into the system.”
“Enemies of Social Security are spinning all kinds of verbiage to make it seem complicated when it’s really not,” O’Neill said.
Larsen advocated for increasing the federal minimum wage, as well as promoting HR3118: the Strengthening Social Security Act.
He said that one of the main aspects of the act is “scrapping the cap,” and it also aims to strengthen the program by changing inflation rates that apply to Social Security taxes.
“$117,000 is a lot of money [to have], but more importantly, over $117,000 is a lot of money,” Larsen said.
He acknowledged the fact that achieving this goal is not going to be an easy task.
“There is a lot of work ahead of us, and the wind isn’t blowing in our sails right now,” Larsen said.
After Rep. Larsen’s presentation he sat down with Watkins and O’Neill for some questions from the audience.
When someone asked what generates the fear of Social Security, O’Neill said “the growing disconnect between what the vast majority of people and voters want, and what they are receiving.”
After the questions, Robby Stern of the Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action finished the event with a call to action. He asked the audience to call their local senators and ask them to co-sponsor HR3118, as well as spread awareness of the issues surrounding Social Security.
“People don’t understand that there is a cap,” Stern said. “We are making progress in congress, but the biggest problem is that people just don’t know.”